In Memoriam: Fr. William J. Connolly, SJ
Monday, April 8th, 2013
Born July 29, 1925
Entered the Society June 30, 1944
Died at Campion Center, Weston MA, April 4, 2013
Fr. William J. Connolly, SJ
Bill Connolly was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on July 29, 1925, the oldest of three children in a deeply religious, working-class family, in a community where most of their neighbors worked under hard conditions in the cotton mills. Bill’s father, though, worked for his brother in a coal-delivery business, so the family had a steady income during the depression when many of the mills closed and work was unsteady.
Bill was born with cataracts and required regular bouts of surgery over a period of five years. Oddly, his poor eyesight, which kept him from many childhood activities such as sports, turned him into a voracious reader, especially of books about history and aviation. He once told a friend he was probably the only kid at school who had been around the world three times before he was 14 and all without moving a muscle out of his chair. It also gave him a lifelong love of long, contemplative walks.
He attended local Catholic schools where he was taught by the Sisters of Notre Dame and the Xaverian Brothers. He entered Boston College in February of 1943, in a program designed to allow top students to have some college study before they were subject to the military draft. There he came under the influence of Jesuits who quickly spotted his academic ability, in particular Fr. Maurice Whelton, a brilliant, eccentric theologian. When he was turned down by the draft board because of his eyesight, Whelton suggested he might think of entering the Jesuits. He applied and, after a doctor declared his eyesight would get no worse, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Shadowbrook, in Lenox, Massachusetts, in June 1944.
He did philosophy studies at Weston, then taught Latin, Greek, and English during regency, first at Fairfield Prep in 1950-1951, then at Boston College High School in 1951-1953. He returned to Weston for theology studies. There he developed his interest in the library and its resources and pursued his bookish interests. With some other scholastics he was involved in a long-running contest to see who could come up with the most seldom used word. Somewhere in the course of studies he acquired the nickname Milo (apparently an allusion to Myles Connolly, a B.C. graduate who wrote a popular “Catholic” novel of the day, Mr. Blue, about a young man who decides to take Christianity seriously, though perhaps it also incorporated a reference to Cicero’s Pro Milone, a Shadowbrook text). A charismatic Jesuit librarian at Weston, Fr. Brendan Connolly, encouraged him to pursue his bibliophilic interests. So it was decided that—after his ordination, in 1956, and tertianship at Pomfret Center, Connecticut, in 1957-1958—he would be sent to the University of Chicago for studies in library science. In 1959, though Weston needed a librarian and he returned there. He did this for nearly a decade, then went to study theology at St. Paul University, Ottawa, from 1968 to 1972.
Those who knew Bill only slightly at this point in his life, could never have guessed the enormous influence he would come to have on the province, the lives of so many Jesuits, and indeed on hundreds of religious sisters and lay men and women around the world in the following decades. The turning point he described in a later account of his life, “I was experiencing more and more the depth of my growing desire to continue working with people on a more spiritual level. I was giving a good part of my time to retreat work, workshops on prayer, and spiritual direction. I wanted to continue that ministry.”
The decisive moment came in the fall of 1970, when he and several New England Jesuits (among them Bill Barry, a counseling psychologist, and Bob Doherty, who had studied spiritual theology) attended a workshop on spiritual direction conducted by a Jesuit from the Maryland Province, Dominic Marucca. There they formulated the idea for what became, in 1971, the Center for Religious Development, in Cambridge—an intensive training program in spiritual direction for male and female religious, lay people, and ultimately men and women from other religious traditions. A year later, in 1972, Bill Barry and Bill Connolly (and later Bob Doherty) began a two-summer tertianship program for the New England Province. In 1975, the two Bills began to put down on paper the principles and practices that underlay their work at CRD and in the tertianship program. Their book, The Practice of Spiritual Direction, published in 1982, reprinted numerous times, and subsequently translated into 11 languages, articulated for the post-Vatican II church a contemporary understanding of the central practice of Ignatian spirituality. Together with the work of CRD, it was a major contribution to the world-wide revival of that spirituality over the next two decades, finding receptive audiences especially in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Europe, and the Caribbean.
His other publications included a book describing the evolution and design of the CRD program, written with his close friend and collaborator, Sr. Madeline Birmingham, RC, Witnessing to the Fire: Spiritual Direction and the Development of Directors (1994), and numerous articles in the Review for Religious and Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits.
Bill remained associated with CRD and the tertianship program until 1997, sitting in his smoke-grimed room in Cambridge (a pipe was never out of reach), listening to hundreds of men and women, sending each of them off with a cheery “Grand, Sheila!” or “Just great, Joe!” For the next decade he was engaged in the ministry of spiritual direction in Maryland and in the Jesuit Community at Boston College. In 2007, he moved to the Campion Health Center in Weston, where he read and listened and nodded and even talked, and was devotedly cared for by his sister, Peg. Finally, his great heart failed him and he died on April 4, 2013.